Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Scrivener - a quick appraisal

I’ve been using Scrivener now for a few months and must say that I really like it. Sometimes I feel that it’s like using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, but learning which bits are useful is an ongoing process. So much so, that, on Paul’s advice, I now devote one morning a week to learning something new and then spend the rest of the week working it into my daily writing.

Basically, for those who have not come across it, Scrivener is a multi-tasking piece of software whereby you can collect all your research, import relevant files and pictures, write scenes as stand-alones and then rearrange them in the order you want, have a ‘corkboard’ of cards for synopses for each scene/chapter etc. etc. all in one file or project. The left hand side of the screen – the “binder” – is a one-look overview of what you have in that file. You can work with split screens. The other week, I was writing an account of my fictional queen’s coronation for the third Luke Ballard book. I needed to check back on a contemporary account of Anne Boleyn’s coronation in 1533. So I worked with a split screen, one side was my chapter and the other side was the account. I was able to scroll down the research document, find what I needed and immediately begin to relate the events in my fictional account. When you have finished, you can compile the scenes/chapters and export them as a Word document in a format that most editors will accept for submissions.

There is a lot of support on the net, including video tutorials, an instruction manual – huge – which I did print out and interactive tutorials. And, one of the best things, the package is very affordable. I tried it out free for about a week and then bought it. It has helped my writing in several ways. The most useful so far is the ease with which I can write scenes out of order and then play about with where I want them to be in the finished document.

So, there has to be a downside, doesn’t there? Yes, there is. I still can’t find a formatting method whereby after a double space denoting the end of one section and the beginning of the next, the first line of the new part will be blocked and not indented. As this is a basic requirement of fiction editors, I can't work out why I can't find out how to do it.

The other downside is that I am the kind of person who works better with a tutor and a course, so I just wish that somebody somewhere in the north of England would run a ‘Scrivener for Writers’ workshop for a couple of days, purely so that they could show me – s l o w l y – how to use the various components that I need for me. The videos are good, but the instructions are too fast and by the time I've assimilated them, the instructor is on the next but one bit.

That said, it’s still a cracking piece of software and one with which I will persevere.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Stepping out of the comfort zone

The amorphous 'they' tell us it is good to step out of our usual habits once in a while. I have been experimenting with this idea on two fronts in the recent past. Normally I have a very controlling method of writing in that I start at the beginning and go on to the end, only stopping off at about chapter 5 to write the last bit of the book so I know where I'm headed. Using the amazing Scrivener, though, I am now writing scenes that I know must appear in the book, but I'm not exactly sure where. The pudding still has to be eaten to see if this method works for me, but, so far, so good.

And the other experiment is writing a suspense/romance. Not my usual genre at all, as I usually prefer crime, either contemporary or historical. The working title for this new book is "The Croaking Raven", but I am not at all sure it fits the genre. Great for a crime thriller, but probably not a susp/rom. I have my plot. I have my characters AND their photographs - again all stored in the one Scrivener file. I need to see what my characters look like to read their personalities, if that makes sense. It's an extension of the Miss Marple device of certain people reminding her of someone in St Mary Mead. I used to be quite skeptical about this, but so many times I've seen someone who reminds me of someone else and find that they are exactly like that person.

The setting for the new book is the north of Wisconsin just above Green Bay in a small fictional town called Ballards Bay. My protagonist, Abbie Russell, is a computer expert in the local library. She has two flat-coated retrievers who are therapy dogs for those who cannot communicate with people because of some trauma, or who are lonely and cannot relate to anyone. All goes swimmingly until Abbie's boss is relocated and arrogant, stand-offish Ellis Carter takes charge.

So far, I've written about 12,000 words and I think I will be aiming for about 80-100k. It's a learning curve, one I am enjoying. I'll be keeping you posted on my progress, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Choosing a title

Choosing a title is one of the most important things a writer has to do and is perhaps only superceded by the crafting of synopses as the most hated task. So, where do we find our titles?

Sometimes, the theme of the book suggests a title. Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” falls into this category. The perfect description in three words of the basic characters of the two main protagonists, Elinor all head and Marianne all heart. Short, snappy, says everything.

Some titles are just alluring whilst referring to the subject matter of the book and I would choose Linda Acaster’s “Torc of Moonlight” to illustrate this. A timeslip thriller, it deals with the distant past infringing on the present. Again, the title is short and sweet, but has an eerie quality about it that tells you all you need to know about the tenor of the story. A play on words is frequently hard to resist. Stuart Aken’s “Breaking Faith” uses this and it reflects the multi-layered story of Faith as she comes from darkness, through adversity into light.

The genre can also help with formulating a title. Shirley Wells’s “Presumed Dead” uses policespeak to set the mood for ex-cop Dylan Scott’s search for woman who has been missing for a long time. Sometimes authors use repeated phrases; the perfect example of this is J D Robb’s ‘In Death” series, now up to about No 34. Karen Wolff’s ‘Seers’ series uses this device, too.

For the rest of us, and I include myself in this category, searching for the perfect title can be a game. I must know my title before I can begin to write. I think about the theme or tone of the book and go initially to Shakespeare, always good for a pithy bon mot or a phrase that can be tweaked to say what I want it to say. Penny Grubb used this to good effect with a quote by Joseph De Maistre in her crime novel “Like False Money”.

For my contemporary crime series featuring Georgia Pattison, I use musical titles, because she is an early music soprano. For these, I generally go to opera, so the second in the series, not yet published is “When I Am Laid In Earth” from Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ and the third will probably end up as “Say Goodbye Now” the title of Figaro’s first act aria to Cherubino in ‘The Marriage of Figaro”. It is amusing how many musical titles fit a crime story!

So, when you next pick up a book from the library shelves, don’t think the title was just added as an afterthought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Working day of a writer…

Or perhaps the title should be the working day of this writer. Talking with non-writing friends, it is alarming how frequently the M and I words come up. Muse and Inspiration. When I tell them that it’s a job like any other, that I work similar hours to them, they look at me as if I just exited the shuttle from the planet Zog. So here for those of you who are interested is my day.
6am – out of bed with husband. Follow him into shower.
6.30am. Sit and check mails with a cup of tea (thank you, Paul). Plan day’s work if I didn’t do that the previous day.
7am Walk dog. This is one of the best parts of the day for me. I have to be careful with my knee, but try to get a good walk in on the beach or in the park.
8am Back home. Prepare dinner, if possible to the stage of putting it in the oven so all that needs to happen is the oven gets turned on at the right time.
8.30 Breakfast. Coffee. Read
9am At desk. Check day’s plan. Use a the timer on the phone to work in set periods with intervals for coffee, getting up and moving about. Basically, it is bum in chair and words on page.
12pm Lunch
I am currently trying to work in an extra 15-30 minutes of walking in the middle of the day, but the knee dictates what I can do. However, following Jurgen Wolff’s suggestion, this period of walking/strolling or whatever is useful for sorting out plot points, thinking about characters etc.
1pm Back at desk. Ditto the morning. Last job, clear desk and plan out next day’s work.
4pm Go down, feed dog, fill dishwasher. Sit and wait for husband to come home and pinch his iPad in the meantime to catch up on my reading.
So that’s my routine. If the weather is foul, I stop work earlier and sit in the bath to think about plot points or characterization or settings etc. John Mortimer used to do this and I agree with him that proximity to water is a great thought liberator.
So, now you can all see, it IS just a job, like any other. But far, far more enjoyable than most.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Flaming June indeed!

There are, as I type this, two bumblebees on the outside ledge of my office window sill. I won't describe in detail what they are doing, but if I say that I'm tempted to tell them to get a room, you'll have the basic idea. Yesterday's six hour downpour seems to have everything more vibrant and livelier. I was grateful, not least because I didn't have to heft watering cans all round the front garden. I just wish that my gorgeous scented climber rose Etoile de Hollande was a little more robust. The rain bent two stems down onto the lawn. The flowerheads are so big that they occasionally look like those anorexic stick-insect celebrities who end up resembling lollipops. One thing I can guarantee is that will never happen to me. However, the rest of my garden is blooming. The Black Knight delphiniums are glorious, the New Dawn climbing rose is giving the arch a run for its money and I have an attack of the Sweet Williams. Everything looks clean and fresh and fit for a carnival.

In fact, the rain has had another effect. I am rebelling against the strictures of my GP and her 'a little gentle exercise' because of my swollen knee. This morning, I am working in timed chunks and having a little dance for a few minutes in between. Is the resultant uplift in my spirits enough to counter the increased pain in my knee? Don't know. The jury's out on that one. But, with the help of Jurgen Wolff, I am embarking on a 30 day "Light Writing" programme that will not only focus my writing, but also help me back on the weight reducing/health bandwagon. I thank the powers that be that I only have to wait another 48 hours to see a physiotherapist and finally, I might find out what is wrong with the wretched knee and start back on the road to recovery. I found it very instructive that two of Jurgen's questions were 'how happy are you about your fitness level' and ditto about your writing productivity. Whilst I'm averagely ok with the second - 7/10, I am far from content with the first - 4/10. Hence the dancing. My only real sorrow is that I cannot cope with the local swimming baths mixed changing arrangements. I'm sure I've wittered on about this before, but I adore swimming. I've tried to get my head round meeting some geriatric leerer as I come out of the shower - sorry pal, no way am I taking my cozzie off until I get in the changing cubicle - but I can't. How can anyone shower properly with a swimming costume on?

My only other idea is to get to know one of the locals with a pool who wouldn't mind me ploughing up and down a few times a week. So, for the moment, I am reduced to walking Rufus to the nearest patch of green and throwing a ball until he flops on the grass and the odd, very odd, bit of dancing in between writing chunks. No wonder I've put 5lbs on in the last 6 weeks!

Of course, if some enlightened editor accepted my agent's view of "Duty of Evil", a swimming pool wouldn't be an issue. So, all together now, positive thinking. Om...swimming pool for

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Looking at the big picture

The life gurus and coaches are always suggesting that we do a 'life audit', a de-cluttering of our belongings and houses, thereby freeing up the brain to join in the serenity such an activity engenders. To be truthful, I've been a regular de-clutterer for a long time. When I was forced to move house 6 times in 2 years, I soon learned to cut the rubbish out with a ruthless hand.

I think that as a writer, we should do the same thing. Having taken part in Jurgen Wolff's Massive Action Day on bank holiday Saturday, I felt empowered to, not just focus on my tasks and increase my productivity, but also to extend that to the 'writing stuff' section of my filing cabinet. BTW anyone who needs a bit of focussing and allowing themselves the time to be creative will benefit from Jurgen Wolff's MAD days. It is a day when we reach out from our solitary cells to join in an interactive day of creativity, encouraging others, asking for help with problems and listening to Jurgen's tips on how to make the job of creating easier.

Anyway, back to the the filing de-clutter thing. This morning, I decided was 'the day'. I spent some of Saturday playing with Scrivener, software that many writers use, which keeps every part of a writing project, from synopsis, through scenes, chapters, research and the like, easily accessible in one folder. The software isn't a doddle. It needs time and for the user to progress through the interactive tutorials. I thought a productive way of gathering together all my writing odds and ends would be to make a project in Scrivener called Catalogue of ideas and plots. First job was to empty the filing cabinet of all the flotsam and jetsam I have gathered over the last 25 years and collate it. That alone took nearly two hours, mostly because I have 'bits' all over the place, a dreadful admission for a professional librarian to make. Then I looked through all the material, some of it going back to the late 1980s and added it to the Scrivener file. I can't make up my mind whether the result is encouraging or awful. One thing has emerged. I love plotting, playing what-if with ideas, twisting them round. I'm not so good at the follow-through. So here, ladies and gentlemen - as they say in the best circles - are the results.

I have two Luke Ballard alternate history mysteries plotted and unwritten. I have three Georgia Pattison, musical mysteries plotted and unwritten. I have, wait for it, ten full length plots for romantic suspense novels, including four that are partially written. I also have ten short stories plotted with some unfinished, including one, handwritten in, I think, 1992, which lasts for 3 pages and then stops abruptly just where it is getting interesting.

So, do I feel better for this 'writing audit'? I honestly don't know. Only time and the ease of reference to the different plots in the Scrivener file will tell. Watch this space.